By Nick Shook
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The New Orleans Saints have won seven straight.
Is the year 2009? No, but there are some similarities.
In that season, the Saints reeled off 13 straight wins to open the campaign before dropping their final three, which were essentially meaningless games. New Orleans also ran out to a 13-3 mark with an incredibly balanced and dangerous offense.
In 2017, New Orleans has rushed for 1,280 yards (142.2 per game) through its first nine games. In the Saints‘ first nine games of 2009, they rushed for 1,360 yards (151.1 per game).
New Orleans also won the Super Bowl during that season.
The 2017 Saints rushing attack received a great statistical boost last week with its blowout win over Buffalo, a game in which New Orleans rushed for 298 yards as a team, its best mark of the season. Coincidentally, those 2009 Saints also had their best rushing performance of the season (222 yards) at the same stadium in Orchard Park, New York, in a Week 3 win over the Bills.
This Saints team has a constant at quarterback in Drew Brees, who won his first and only Super Bowl ring in 2009. But the rest of the team is vastly different. Instead of relying on a three-headed attack of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush, New Orleans is rolling with the tandem backfield of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The latter is playing the role of the dual-threat Bush, while Ingram is playing both Bell and Thomas, with his build being eerily similar to the second of the two (Thomas: 5-foot-11, 210 pounds; Ingram: 5-foot-10, 215 pounds).
But any team can assemble a similar backfield. That doesn’t mean it always works. So why is it working for New Orleans?
To the game tape!
The Saints made a couple of key moves in the offseason along their front five, bidding adieu to very capable right guard Jahri Evans and signing Larry Warford away from the Detroit Lions, and drafting Ryan Ramczyk and inserting him at right tackle. It’s worked wonders.
New Orleans set the tone from the very beginning, ripping off runs of nine and 14 yards on its first two carries of the afternoon. On the latter, Warford displayed what made him a prized free agent.
Warford goes from exactly four yards of separation between he and linebacker Preston Brown (per Next Gen Stats) when he first gives a hand to Ramczyk, who’s engaged with Kyle Williams, to closing that gap before Ingram hits the line of scrimmage. That might not sound much, but at the high speed at which the pro game is played, it’s incredibly impressive. His block creates an inside wall, while Ramczyk continues to handle Williams on the outside, providing Ingram a lane to burst through to a 14-yard gain up the middle.
Pinned on their own 6-yard line with a sizable lead already in hand, the Saints hand off to Mark Ingram on a zone split. Warford is the key block here, moving in step with a slanting Adolphus Washington to push him to his outside shoulder (with momentary help from center Max Unger, who quickly doubles back to wall off the inside). Warford follows a key tenet of zone blocking: Take the man where he wants to go and let the running back make the decision.
But there’s a catch.
As with any good offensive line, it’s understandable and reasonably expected to see it pave the way for a 150-yard, even a 200-yard performance and be able to give a lot of the credit to the men up front. But once we get close to 300, we have to start scrutinizing the defense for user error. There was plenty of that from Buffalo.
Take a look at that play again. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy beats left guard Andrus Peat inside and is in perfect position to blow the play up for a loss. And then, in a split second, he sees tight end Josh Hillcrossing his face on the split block, braces for impact and falls completely out of the play as Ingram jukes past him and into the hole.
This also happened earlier in the game. On that same tone-setting drive mentioned earlier, the Saintsripped off a huge run on a gutsy fourth-and-1. Then again, when looking at the first two running plays of the game, it wasn’t all that gutsy when considering how well New Orleans knew it was moving the opposition.
You saw the second run of that possession earlier. Here’s the first one.
While Jerry Jones droned on this week about the “wide nine” and how it destroyed Dallas backup left tackle Chaz Green in a loss to the Falcons like it was a revolutionary concept to which it’s difficult to adjust, New Orleans does it with ease. Look at the width of left tackle Terron Amstead’s split.
The wide split allows Amstead to pivot and drive defensive end Jerry Hughes to the edge, removing him from the play as the rest of the line works upfield at an angle. With an assist from Peat, Unger gets in front of the shaded nose tackle Washington while Peat moves upfield to get Alexander to the edge, again, taking his man where he wants to go.
Kamara, the ideal multi-use back who’s proving the Saints wise in their selection of him last spring, hits the hole with speed for a chunk ground gain of nine.
So when it came to fourth-and-1, why not go for it? The Saints‘ line was showing it could move the defense enough to get the three free and a fresh set of downs — or 25 yards.
Ah, the classic power play. Two double teams clear out defensive tackles Worthy and Cedric Thornton, and swallow up Brown in the process. We’re off to a good start here. And then, the user error.
Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander reads the double teams and fills the wrong gap entirely, choosing B over A, getting caught in the wash and allowing Ingram a wide lane to sprint through unimpeded. Edge backer Humber tries to shoot under the double team on Thornton, but comes up empty handed. To top things off, deep safety Micah Hyde is bowled over on a half-hearted attempt to go for Ingram’s legs. The result: a 25-yard gain that set up New Orleans for its first touchdown of the day.
A lot of the afternoon was like this. Effective blocking mixed with poor gap integrity on the part of the Bills. But we’ll close with an example of how winning makes everything better.
Receivers usually don’t enjoy blocking. But the Saints have lost just twice all season, meaning there’s plenty of the magic elixir flowing through the players’ veins. That stuff can be convincing. Take wideout Michael Thomas on this run.
In case you weren’t sure which one Thomas was, he’s the receiver crashing down with a crackback on a defensive end. That physical mismatch requires courage not found in most skilled guys. But Thomas meets Shaq Lawson in his blind spot, impeding his progress long enough to both allow Ramczyk to pull to the perimeter to lead downfield for Kamara, but also to allow Kamara to get around the edge and upfield.
Clemson might be 2-0 against Ohio State in their last two meetings, but the former Buckeye beat the former Tiger on this play.
Oh, and let’s not forget Warford, who’s gotten up to the second level, engaged Humber and is riding him out to the boundary, creating plenty of space for Kamara to cut back inside for a gain of 19.
That’s about as well-executed as a toss sweep can be. That kind of team effort is what wins football games, plain and simple. It’s a fantastic example of why the Saints had the big day they enjoyed — and why they’re 7-2.